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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

The morning sun rises pale and weak over the misty rooftops of my neighbourhood. It is unusually warm – Toronto’s equivalent of a western Chinook, I suppose. Snow is melting so fast you can hear it running through the gutters and downspouts.

I put my coffee on the table and settle into my usual spot. Looking up, I pause to gaze at the photo of her beautiful face smiling at me from across the table. Our grandchildren call her Grandma Peg to distinguish her from me – I’m Grandma Stace. We always thought we’d be Nanny and Granny, but in the end, the kids chose our names, and that was just fine with us.

I know what she would say if she were here. We had the same conversation every morning for 30 years…

”It’s going to be warm again today. We can probably get away with a sweater and rubber boots. Maybe we should get outside and chop away the ice from the storm sewers.”

I finish my coffee and put on her sweater – the old red one – my rubber boots and tuque. The hat is only meant to hide my hair. I haven’t showered for days and I don’t care enough to fix it, but okay, after I finish chopping the ice, I’ll shower.

Chopping the ice away from the storm sewers used to be her job. Now, it’s mine, and honestly? I’m mad about it. I’m not supposed to be doing this. She always enjoyed this job, so somewhere inside, I’m still confused about why she isn’t out here instead of me, chopping ice and creating rivers of melted snow along the side of the road. I stare at the rushing water, vaguely aware of it pooling and swirling around my boots – and then I’m lost, not for the first time, down the rabbit hole of memories.

There was a snow day about 25 years ago and our son Jesse was home from school. In my mind’s eye, he was 11 years old and stood on top of a huge snow pile in our front yard. We couldn’t afford a snowblower yet, and so we shovelled all that snow by hand. He wasn’t much help as he played with his sister Cora as if he was three years old, too, showering the snow back onto the sidewalk as quickly as we shovelled it off. Someone, I don’t remember who, threw the first snowball and that was it – we were all in the fight, laughing our frozen cheeks off and screaming as the snow melted on our collars and dripped down our necks. Eventually, Peggy handed both of them a shovel and told them to get moving, that the snow wasn’t going to shovel itself and there was no way she was going to do all of it by herself. It wasn’t long before the shovels were abandoned and the games began again.

That was the day that our ritual began. The snow cleared, I went inside while they put the shovels away, and I made hot chocolate – with real cocoa and sugar. Miniature marshmallows, but not for Peg. “Too sweet,” she said.

A few years later, we got a snowblower. By that time, Jesse was rarely home – out with friends doing whatever teenagers do, and Cora, struggling with homework, needed my help. Peg would blow the snow for hours after dinner – piling it into submission up and down the street. Our neighbours loved her for that. She cleared sidewalks, front walks and parking spaces on the street. She cleared the snow, saying it was because she loved me and wanted me to be able to park close to home. But if truth were told, I think she did it because she was just so tired of hearing me complain about not having anywhere to park.

While our lives changed, hot chocolate remained. I would watch to see when she was just about finished, timing it carefully so that when she came through the door, snowy, sweaty and complaining, the hot chocolate would be ready. I always shared a cup with her, listening as she told me how tired she was, silently willing me to say thank you and appreciate what she had done. Sometimes I said thank you. Sometimes I didn’t. I could be small that way, begrudging her the thanks for no reason other than I was in a mood. Now I wanted to tell her I was sorry for all the times I was unnecessarily selfish or short-tempered. But it was too late for that. The damage was done and she was gone.

Had I known the future, maybe I would have been more understanding or kinder. Maybe I would have said thank you more often.

They took her body away in the morning. She had actually died the evening before – it was 11:23 p.m. I don’t know how I knew that. I was a blind animal, trying to kiss her back to life after we realized her pulse had stopped.

“Kiss me with your last breath, and I’ll draw your beautiful life into my lungs, and hold you there beside my heart, until time releases me to you.”

She seemed relieved when I said that, her sweet, chemo-bald head nodding slowly. Her frightened eyes calmed and closed. She continued to breathe, slowly and quietly, until she just stopped, without notice, without warning, without drama.

I couldn’t bring myself to leave her side, and I slept beside her as I had since the beginning of time. I leaned into her, one leg draped across her hips, my left arm encircling her head, and lay with her until morning. Under cover of darkness, no stranger was going to touch her and death would not take her from me.

They took her body away in the morning, walking slowly and respectfully down the staircase from our bedroom. Jesse told me I could look away, wanting to spare me the pain of watching her leave. But I owed her this. She deserved to have all of us bear witness to her journey. We applauded as they took her away. Some might think that strange – as if we were somehow happy at her leaving. But we applauded anyway. We gave her a standing ovation.

I don’t know how long I’ve been standing here, lost in the moving water and ice, but I emerge from the rabbit hole, and finish chopping and clearing the storm sewer, sweating with exertion. I figure it’s time for a shower and so I put away the shovel and wander inside. But instead of showering, I make hot chocolate, cocoa with sugar and no marshmallows and sit down with the photo of her beautiful face smiling at me from across the table.

Stacey Michener lives in Toronto.

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